VIERA, Fla. — Michael A. Taylor walked away from the batting cage shaking his head and smiling, a blend of frustration and satisfaction as the ball he scorched down the left-field line appeared as if it wasn’t ever going to come back down. With a short, compact swing, he turned on Ali Modami’s inside pitch and hooked it sharply around the foul pole, well beyond the 340-foot marking on the wall.
“I couldn’t get one all day,” Taylor said.
Modami, the Washington Nationals’ left-handed batting practice pitcher, was bringing it before the team’s game against the Miami Marlins at Space Coast Stadium. Taylor finally figured a way to get a hold of one, just as he has done all spring.
Entering Monday, Taylor was leading or at the top of nearly every offensive category. He has 20 hits in 44 at-bats — a .455 batting average — and 15 RBI, all of which are team highs. His four home runs and five doubles rank tied for first and his nine runs are tied second. His .500 on-base percentage and .841 slugging percentage total for a 1.341 OPS — more than 200 points higher than any other player on the team that has had at least 10 at-bats in spring training.
The point, which is obvious by now, is that Taylor is producing at a stunning rate, and manager Dusty Baker is dead set on finding him at-bats in the regular season. As the fourth outfielder behind left fielder Jayson Werth, center fielder Ben Revere and right fielder Bryce Harper, the chances will come in a variety of ways. In the last four seasons, the Nationals have needed at least 400 plate appearances from a fourth outfielder, whether it be injury or production related.
Taylor played 138 games in his first full season in 2015, filling in for center fielder Denard Span, who battled various injuries. He hit .229 with 14 home runs and 63 RBI, along with a team-high 16 stolen bases. When Span hit free agency, the Nationals whiffed on signing Jason Heyward and ultimately traded former closer Drew Storen for Revere.
“Ben is supposed to get on base and score runs and Michael has the capability of doing everything,” Baker said. “But, you can only play three at a time. It’s not a quarterback controversy. It is what it is.”
There’s one other category Taylor’s name is atop. He has 12 strikeouts, tied with Werth for a team high. Last season Taylor struck out 158 times — second behind former shortstop Ian Desmond.
“I think that’ll improve by not focusing on it when I’m out there,” Taylor said. “It’s kind of the talk of my game right now. I think the more I make it a point, the more it becomes a problem. I have a good approach and a good plan and just let it fall where it may.”
In Saturday’s 7-0 win against the St. Louis Cardinals, Taylor, on his 25th birthday, clubbed a ground-rule double in his first at-bat. It was his next at-bat, in which Taylor drew a walk, that made hitting coach Rick Schu proud. Taylor exhibited the same disciplined approach, the one that Schu remembers seeing in the Nationals’ regular-season finale in 2015. Facing the New York Mets on a sunny October Sunday afternoon, Taylor drew a 10-pitch walk against New York Mets pitcher Jacob deGrom.
“For him it’s the mentality,” Schu said. “It’s in there, you just can’t give at-bats away. [Last year] he’s facing deGrom, in the shadows, throwing 98. He goes down 0-2, fouls some off, takes a couple pitches, fouls some off, it’s a 10-pitch walk. If he has that mentality every at bat, the strikeouts will cut down.”
Taylor has drawn four walks this spring. With a better understanding of the strike zone, Taylor has shown more confidence at the plate, according to Schu, which is helping the young outfielder keep his swing simple. When he does that, his power is often on full display.
During an 8-2 win against the Cardinals last Thursday, Taylor hit a two-run double to tie the score, 2-2, in the bottom of the fourth inning. The next inning, the right-handed hitter belted a two-run home run to opposite field to make it 7-2.
“This is what’s great about big-league baseball,” said pitcher Max Scherzer, who earned the win that day. “We brought in Ben Revere and it only made Michael Taylor better. When you have competition around, it brings out the best in everybody and what we’re seeing right now is he’s growing up right in front of our eyes and that’s even better. He puts a smile on everybody’s face. You want to see somebody have success because at the end of the day, we’re all pulling on the same rope.”
Taylor’s spring has been eye-opening for Baker, too. The Nationals’ manager didn’t know him until this season and has called it “a pleasure” to coach him.
“Sometimes he acts like he’s not listening,” Baker quipped. “But he’s always listening.”
What Baker knows now is that Taylor can have an impact on the lineup. The only challenge will be finding ways to play Taylor, but after seeing his game up close the last two months, Baker is determined to find a way.
“He’s my James Harden right now and some day you’ll have to play James Harden, know what I mean?” Baker said, referring to the Houston Rockets’ star. “The sky is the limit for this guy and he wants it and has tremendous desire. There’s a whole bunch of at-bats for Michael Taylor.”